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Neurodivergence at Work: What, Why, and How?

Updated: May 4

Language Shapes Thoughts, Words Matter in Neurodiversity


Like our fingerprints, every human brain is highly individual. No two human brains are exactly alike, not even for identical twins. This uniqueness is mostly driven by a combination of genetic factors, environment, and individual life experiences. This is important as it shows us that there is no single definition of “normal” or “correct” for how the human brain works. Instead of using “normal” and “abnormal” to describe people, using terms like “neurotypical” and “neurodivergent” focuses on how brain differences affect different people’s capabilities and strengths in doing certain things.

 

The concept of neurodiversity has had a significant impact on society since it was first introduced by Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist who is on the autism spectrum herself, in the late 1990s. By challenging the conventional beliefs of what is considered normal and abnormal, Singer transformed the way people view and address disabilities and neurological conditions through her neurodiversity movements. Instead of viewing neurodivergence as a deficit or medical condition that needs to be fixed, neurodiversity advocates recognize that each person perceives and responds to information differently, hence they put a spotlight on each person’s strengths and talents while providing support for their differences and needs.

 

Micheal Phelps

For example, Michael Phelps, a legendary Olympian swimmer, who was diagnosed with ADHD as a child. He struggled with attention difficulties and behaviour problems at school. But while he could not sit through classes without fidgeting, he could swim for up to three hours at the pool after school. As Phelps recalls, “Once I figured out how to swim, I felt so free…I could go fast in the pool, it turned out, in part because being in the pool slowed down my mind. In the water, I felt, for the first time, in control.” By the age of 15, he made history as the youngest male member of the U.S. Olympic swim team in 68 years after qualifying for the 2000 Summer Olympics. Phelps is widely regarded as the greatest swimmer of all time and one of the most successful athletes with a total of 28 medals.


Other real-life cases:

 

As the famous saying goes, “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it’s stupid.”


Fostering Neurodiversity in the Workplace


Despite Malaysia’s unemployment rate remaining relatively low at 3.3 per cent in Q1 2024, we are still a candidate-short market where many HR executives struggle to address the exacerbating skills gap within their organizations due to brain drain and talent shortage. Hence, many are turning their attention and tapping into the “hidden workforce” who are often overlooked or underutilized by the traditional labour force, such as retirees, people who are long-term unemployed, formerly incarcerated individuals, as well as neurodivergent individuals.

 

Fostering neurodiversity in the workplace is not an easy task. Stigma, lack of understanding, lack of acceptance, or even a lack of suitable workspace could lead to the exclusion of neurodivergent individuals in the workplace. Some neurodivergent individuals struggle to perform because of the systems or processes that limit their ability to show off their skills and strengths. When it comes to supporting neurodiversity in the workplace, it is important for all of us to create an inclusive organisational culture and environment that removes barriers to those who are neurodiverse.


For example:

  1. Many neurodivergent individuals struggle in social situations, where they may feel uncomfortable maintaining direct eye contact with people for a long period or speaking in front of groups, which makes it hard for them to find work as they struggle to perform during interviews. However, they can still get the job if the hiring process emphasizes their hard skills and abilities. Once on the job, their detail-focused processing style could help them to easily process data and information that others might find more tedious. Aside from attention to detail, they often excel at logical thinking, pattern recognition, superior problem-solving, and memorizing lots of information. Hence, they would be suitable for occupations like programmers, accountants, data officers, policy advisers, copywriters, etc.

  2. Some neurodivergent individuals experience heightened senses, in which they are more sensitive to taste, touch, smell, and especially sound. Loud noises, bright lights, and strong smells could cause sensory overload that makes them feel overwhelmed, distressed, irritable, and emotional. However, providing them with a quiet room or corner, dimmer lights, along with a pair of noise-cancelling headphones might just do the trick.

  3. Most neurodivergent individuals are not good at identifying subtle cues, nuances or sarcasm. This communication difference frequently leads to confusion, which can result in instructions not being followed correctly. Therefore, employing a straightforward and concise conversational approach is advisable when communicating with neurodivergent individuals.



Nonetheless, it is important to keep in mind that not all neurodivergent individuals share the same traits, even if they have the same medical condition or diagnosis. Different individuals may have different signs, abilities, and strengths. As colleagues, teammates, friends, mentors, and leaders, we ought to keep an open mind and be flexible about how employees manage their sensory needs and their communication preferences.


Talk to our business and HR strategists today to learn more about how to embrace neurodiversity in your organization.



 

Terminology:

Neurodivergent refers to individuals whose neurological development and functioning deviate from what is considered typical or "neurotypical." This includes conditions such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, Tourette syndrome, and others. Neurodivergent individuals often have different ways of processing information, perceiving the world, and interacting with others compared to neurotypical individuals. It's important to recognize and respect these differences, as they can come with both challenges and strengths. Embracing neurodiversity means acknowledging the value of these diverse perspectives and abilities in society.


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